Why Obama's 'Tonight Show' chat was new low for mainstream media

Presidents typically use entertainment shows to burnish their image. But this week, President Obama turned to 'The Tonight Show' even to address serious policy like the embassy closures.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Obama (l.) smiles as he talks with Jay Leno during a commercial break during the taping of his appearance on 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno' in Los Angeles Tuesday.

President Obama made his first extensive public comments this week on two pressing national security matters – the temporary closing of 19 embassies and rising tensions with Russian President Vladimir Putin – in an unlikely forum, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

Mr. Obama is no stranger to late night television. Since his first run for president in 2008, he has visited a variety of venues– including daytime programs like "The View" and "The Ellen Degeneres Show" – to shape his personal political brand as accessible, fun, and hip, while also using these shows to reach out to key voting demographics. But his remarks Tuesday night to Mr. Leno – during his sixth appearance on the show – seemed to reflect a deliberate effort to avoid direct dialogue with the mainstream media on two topics at the forefront of the public discussion.

"There have been times where they slip back into cold war thinking and a cold war mentality,” Obama said to Leno of the Russians. The next morning, the White House announced that a planned summit with Mr. Putin would be spiked, though the president has made no further public comments.

Why not hold a press conference in the White House briefing room or make a statement in the Rose Garden? Why the informality of a late night entertainment program? And is this yet the latest proof that for those in office, traditional media outlets have become less relevant, while the best means of sharing a message is the one that provides the most direct route to the public – like late night television?

“President Obama uses those kinds of forums mainly because he knows he reaches an audience that is largely friendly to him,” says Richard Benedetto, a former White House correspondent for USA Today and an adjunct professor of politics and journalism at American University. “He also knows that by going on those shows and talking about serious issues, they become less serious.”

By “less serious,” Professor Benedetto says he means less worrisome. Obama can convey a diminished need for the public’s concern by choice of interviewer alone. If the terrorist threat were grave or the relationship with Mr. Putin in real peril, Obama would address Americans from the Oval Office. Or he’d be standing at a podium in the East Room.

“It’s a clever strategy,” Benedetto says.

But it's not good for the public, since the journalists who report on the president day in and out – and understand the policies more thoroughly – aren't able to query Obama further, meaning that his comments lack depth and context, he adds.

In this construct, Obama is also able to shed some personal responsibility, “to make it look like something did not go wrong on his watch” and that the tensions with Putin or heightened terrorist concerns are “not that big a problem,” Benedetto says.

For this week’s trip to NBC studios in Burbank, Calif., Obama has received some pushback, most especially in conservative corners. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh said he had “diminished the presidency” by using Leno to talk about Russia. Limbaugh said Obama’s appearance “made the country look small, made the presidency look small.”

“There's nothing wrong with late-night comedy shows, but this would not have happened with any prior president,” Limbaugh added. “There were serious items on the agenda in our relationship with Russia, and all ... of it was treated as unserious, halfhearted, nothing to really be concerned about.”

The canceling of the summit means that the issue of Edward Snowden – along with other pressing matters such as human rights, nuclear arms reductions, and Syria – remain on the table. And those topics weren’t broached in any depth by Leno. 

The terror threat and embassy closings have also dominated headlines for the past several days. Addressing Americans concerned about whether they should take planned summer trips, Obama told Leno that they use “common sense and some caution.”

“And if people are paying attention, checking with the State Department or embassy, going on the website before you travel, find out what kind of precautions you should be taking, then I think it still makes sense for people to take vacations,” the president said.

Lacking was any further inquiry on what we know and how we know it. Or on the whereabouts of the staffs of all of these embassies.

Over the course of their 45-minute conversation, Leno and Obama covered a wide range of issues, chatting about Obama’s White House lunch with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the budding bromance between the president and Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican Party nominee. They also touched on Obama’s love of broccoli.

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